Arizona Basketball

Arizona Wildcats 20 years ago today: Olson questions team’s toughness in loss at Oregon


EDITOR NOTE: will run a feature this basketball season highlighting what happened 20 years ago on that particular day commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Arizona Wildcats’ national championship. The next in the series is what occurred and what was written concerning the developments of Feb. 20, 1997, when Arizona lost to Oregon 78-72 at McArthur Court in Eugene, Ore., the Wildcats’ third loss in the last six games . The information gathered is through articles written by beat reporters Steve Rivera (Tucson Citizen) and Javier Morales (Arizona Daily Star), who now are working together for

You can access previous stories in this series by clicking on this link.

DATELINE: Feb. 20, 1997, McArthur Court, Eugene, Ore.

Lute Olson has been Arizona’s coach for 14 years, and never has he gone through what he went through here tonight.

Arizona was missing strut and strategy. Because of that, the No. 14 Wildcats lost another Pac-10 road game, this time to overachieving Oregon, 78-72, at McArthur Court.

It was UA’s fourth conference road defeat of the season, the most it has lost on the road in five years.

”If you are going to win on the road in this league, you have to be tough, and we’re not tough,” Olson said. “In the past it seemed like we had a Reggie Geary or someone, and they’d get it done. Right now we’re really lacking in that area.

”We’ve got three more on the road, but if we don’t come out better prepared mentally and be willing to put in the physical effort that it takes, our road record will continue to be down.”

Tonight, UA was listless, lifeless and eventually limp. And that’s what had Olson most frustrated. His team, known to play with spunk and bite, didn’t have it.

Arizona’s heart of stone has turned to glass.

”The difference was effort and desire, and I’d hate to say that because that’s been one of our strengths through the years,” Olson said. ”You have to give (Oregon coach) Jerry (Green) and his staff a whole lot of credit. From the opening tap to the final buzzer, they gave a great effort. And mentally, from a coaching standpoint, we didn’t get our guys ready to play.”

Arizona players admitted they were unprepared.

”We looked like sissies in the first half,” Mike Bibby said.

”Maybe lack of concentration,” he said, shaking his head.

”We had no energy in the first half,” said Jason Terry, who had only five points. ”We can’t afford to do that on the road. At McKale Center we can do that all we want, but on the road, you can’t.”

But lately that’s been the theme for Arizona – play poorly early, give the other team some confidence, but manage to come back and find a way to win. Tonight, Arizona didn’t have enough for the win.

”They came out and jumped on us from the start,” said Arizona’s Michael Dickerson, who didn’t help matters by getting two quick fouls. He finished with 10 points – 10 below his season average.

”They were ready for us,” he said. ”And they wanted it more than us. This was their game because they wanted it.”

Oregon broke out to a 19-6 lead and later a 35-22 advantage, before settling for a 44-32 halftime lead.

”They got hot, and we can’t afford to let teams get a lead like that,” Arizona’s A.J. Bramlett said. ”You can’t expect to give up a lead like than on anybody’s court, no matter who it is. We came back in the second half, but . . .”

The first half set the tone of the game.

”We came in at half, and we’re dead,” Olson said. ”How can you go out and get your butt kicked and not fight back?”

Oregon did a number on Arizona. The Ducks out-rebounded UA, 38-31, had more assists (16 to 14), had fewer turnovers (22 to 20), and a better shooting percentage, 48.3 to 43.1.

As the season closes, Arizona is running out of excuses. Being a youthful team won’t cut it anymore. Particularly when Arizona’s best player last night was Bibby, a freshman. He had 22 points (8 for 16 from the field), almost single-handedly bringing Arizona back from a 12-point second-half deficit.

”Probably the best player on the floor for us was Mike Bibby, and how can that be?” Olson asked rhetorically. ”This is his first time around (in Oregon) and he’s tougher mentally than anyone else?”

— Steve Rivera

* * * * *

Lute Olson’s postgame comments were in stark contrast to how his team played against Oregon tonight.

Showing no hesitation, Olson proclaimed, “On the road, we have to be mentally tougher. The team that played hardest, and was mentally tougher, won this game, no question about it.”

Arizona, trailing by as many as 14 points less than six minutes into the game, tempted fate throughout against the Ducks. Leading scorer Michael Dickerson did not score until the second half, and the Wildcats failed to take the lead until the waning minutes.

In the end, Oregon (15-8 overall, 6-8 Pac-10), which had lost eight of the previous 12 games, looked like the NCAA tournament-bound team with a 78-72 victory in front of 9,626 fans at McArthur Court. The roped off area of 250 seats — a means to protest the students’ unruly behavior recently — didn’t matter.

McArthur Court was as domineering and the Wildcats didn’t meet the challenge. Oregon coach Jerry Green was carried off on the shoulders of fans afterward. His nine-game winless streak, and Oregon’s 12-game slump, against Arizona came to an end.

Miles Simon sat alone in a corridor of the arena, staring aimlessly ahead. The self-proclaimed leader of the Wildcats, who hit a couple of crucial 3-pointers, was non-existent in the waning minutes.

“There’s nothing else to say other than we didn’t finish the job,” Simon said, visibly upset.

Arizona, 16-7 overall and practically eliminated from the Pac-10 title for the third straight year with an 8-5 record, is in jeopardy of becoming the first team with a losing road record since Olson’s first team in 1983-84 went 3-10.

The Wildcats are 2-5 with three road games remaining, the first in two days at Oregon State and the last two in the dangerous Bay area against Cal and Stanford.

— Javier Morales

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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